Beyond Bali: Why you should visit Java, Indonesia's biggest island

A shimmery gamelan track drifts on the equatorial evening air. A gecko chirps, like a squeaky toy, from the tropical garden. And from a nearby mosque rise the piercing vocal arabesques of the muezzin's call to prayer. 

Central Java's cultural capital of Yogjakarta (referred to locally as Jogja) is a little bigger, a little busier, a little scuzzier than I remember from a visit long ago. The population has grown to three and a half million and at any time it seems most Yogjakartans will be ripping around the streets on two-stroke motorbikes. But the abundant charms of this benign sultanate and university town are blessedly intact. The place is crazy busy yet somehow tranquil, traditional, with traces everywhere of its layered past. The palace architecture, in particular, is a hybrid of Buddhist and Muslim, Javanese, Dutch, Chinese and Portuguese influences. 

On the busy streets next morning I note something that eluded me before: the filigreed streetlights, no longer functioning, from the Dutch colonial period. And even where the lights have disappeared their ornamental bases often remain to stud the worn footpaths, dignifying them.  

It's a mid-morning in early June. The sky is clear – the dry season is on its way – and I take the pedal-powered becak waiting outside my hotel. The steering is a little ungainly in these things but they're in use everywhere, and the becak seems to float through the streets like a hovercraft, with cars, trucks and traditional horse-drawn carriages, called andong, parting decorously for us.

Pretty soon I'm at a traditional cafe raised above the road, perched in a carved wooden chair drinking Javanese coffee and surrounded by a streetscape with a village – almost a semi-rural – air. It's about $7 for a cup of kopi luwak, produced from coffee beans that have passed half-digested through a native luwak, or palm civet. The critter whose poop I'm imbibing – no shit! – lies asleep in a large cage outside the cafe, one leg raised to catch the breeze.

The view from the cafe is becalming. The sky is crosshatched with power lines, but around them sprout palm, banana and banyan trees. Mount Merapi, the nearest of several volcanoes, rises like a witch's hat to the north. It's slumbering peacefully today, but can be devastating if roused. Merapi last blew her stack in 2013.

On the other side of the courtyard is a silver workshop. When I visit, a silversmith in a white singlet cleans my old silver wedding ring. Pretty soon it's glistening like foil. "How much for the cleaning?" I ask. He hands the ring back, smiles, shakes his head.

The becak driver is named Catur – Javanese equivalent of Ketut – and we press on to Kota Gede, the heart of the traditional silver district and site of the old royal palace. Although the Muslim cemetery and mosque are closed today, I'm able to admire the 17th-century brickwork of its ramparts and wander around the remains of the adjoining palace. This heritage district is a sleepy enclave on the city's southeastern fringe. A few women swish past in their sarongs, but it's the day of rest and most people are indoors in their high roofed joglos, or traditional houses.

An older woman exchanges ritual courtesies with Catur, then says something obviously directed at me. "What did she say?" I ask. He drops his gaze shyly and replies: "She thinks you have long nose." It's not that long, I return. "Not really insult," says Catur blithely as he pumps the pedals of the becak. "Javanese people all want long nose."

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That night I return to the Kota Gede district for a meal at Omar Duwur, which comes highly recommended. Around a fishpond in the courtyard are tables, with an art gallery and boutique at the front and traces of Dutch colonial, traditional Javanese and art deco architecture. I'm instantly charmed by the live Javanese country and western band. But my luck has deserted me again. The restaurant is reserved tonight for a family function and while there's a room set aside for walk-up guests, all the Javanese dishes – including a chicken rendang, an interesting variation on the traditional beef curry – have been snaffled up. And I haven't come all this way for "spaghetty" or Australian beef tenderloin. The evening ends perfectly pleasantly with soto ayam (chicken soup) and nasi lewit (a kind of coconut rice combo) beside my hotel pool with its menagerie of geckos.

The next few days are spent getting to grips with some of the heritage sights that I, as a 23-year-old, had no time for on an earlier visit. The mid 18th-century Sultan's Palace – in effect the new palace – is a sprawling walled compound of open-air pavilions. It's here that I catch a traditional dance featuring the stock character of the lovesick Prince Panji. His movements are gracious, if slightly reptilian, with many subtle, tremulous shudders of the head and hands. The next act features a group of young women in outfits of frog green and helmets of piled up hair, followed by the appearance of a robust mane-shaking demon. With each act the tempo of the gamelan orchestra quickens and by the time the demon appears on stage it has risen to a cacophony.

In another pavilion are rows of dancers in sarongs going through the motions, at once languorous and precise, of a courtly dance. A palace official explains to a French couple that it is an "ecole de danse"; graduates of this school perform for the sultan, and tourists.

The neighbouring water palace is a surreal delight evoking the dreamy world of Javanese royalty. The palace, or Taman Sari, was built in the late 18th century by an unknown – though possibly Portuguese – architect to please an indulged Javanese prince. Its whitewashed walls are high and heavy, and the entrance gates ornately carved. Its heart is a shallow blue-green pool beneath a three-storey viewing tower. From here the sultan would regard his naked bathing concubines before making his choice. Nearby are a mosque and a meditation space to nurture his soul; the entire complex an example of architecture in the service of desire, both sensual and spiritual.

I have time only for an edited return to Jogja. The 9th-century Buddhist masterpiece of Borobudur, an hour's drive beyond the city, I reserve for my last day. The closest I get to the magnificent Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, which I visited in my early 20s, is a seat on the Prambanan Express (tickets $1.80) to Solo.

The train to Solo takes a little over an hour – halving the time of the road journey – as it slices through a watery landscape of rice fields shining pewter beneath a blue-grey sky, and sleepy villages fast becoming bustling towns. It's a kind of agri-urban conurbation; as you'd expect on an island of 141 million.

Solo, I discover, is a delight. Smaller than Jogja, with a well-preserved colonial-era street grid, it has a rich cultural life focused on its royal palace, or kraton. The complex unfolds along the same basic pattern as its near equivalent in Jogja: a walled compound enclosing pavilions and courtyards. Its colour scheme is blue and white, the colours of (Dutch) Delftware. Its ornamentation is Javanese. And flanking one pavilion is a pantheon of Roman deities.

The palace at Solo – or Surakarta to use its royal title – is more eccentric, more whimsical than its great rival. Where Jogja's royal palace had been awash with Western tourists and visiting school children, the kraton at Solo is almost deserted on the day I visit.

Within the wings of a museum presided over by a guard with a cigarette and a hacking cough are displays of antiquities – statues of Hindu gods and Buddhist Bodhisattvas – and historical curiosities depicting palace life through the ages. But the objects are for the most part in a sorry state, poorly displayed and illuminated, with no descriptions in English. There is a beguiling weirdness to the Solo Kraton. Its most distinctive feature is the five-storey Panggung Songgo Buwono, a cross between a pagoda and a Dutch clock tower. It's on the top floor here that the sultan meets with his spiritual consort, the Queen of the South Sea, to talk about all that is, has been, and will come to pass. Or so it is said.

As we leave, my guide points out the yellow sashes worn like face masks by workmen restoring a statue in the complex. "It's to protect them from ghosts," he explains. "The Javanese feel that there are many spirits alive in the palace." I'm with the Solonese on this; I feel it too.

There's a nostalgic quality to Solo, too, echoed in the Triwindu antiques market. The dark cavern-like stalls are crowded with antique masks, lamps, statues, heritage batik, colonial-era coffee makers and drinks trays, typewriters, transistor radios, art deco figurines, all manner of things – junk for the most part – reflecting the cultural currents of the past 200 years.

Solo may consider itself a taproot of Javanese culture, and in many ways it is. But the stamp of Europe – of the larger world – is as much a part of the Solo experience as its pre-colonial traditions. At lunch later that day at the Roemahkoe Heritage Hotel, built by a wealthy batik merchant in the 1930s, I have the art deco dining room to myself. It's like an equatorial version of modernist Berlin or Vienna. Even the batik, best known of Javanese crafts, has been adapted to Dutch, Chinese and contemporary tastes. 

On my last day I loop back to Borobudur, lying northwest of Yogyakarta. The nine tiers of this miraculous Buddhist sanctuary offer panoramic views of jagged hills, soaring volcanoes, and lush tropical vegetation, all of it a radiant green. So on the most basic level it is a splendid viewing platform.

No one knows the true purpose of UNESCO world-heritage listed Borobudur, but it unmistakably directs its visitors towards inner as well as outer vistas. Each level narrates episodes from Buddhist literature in a series of friezes carved in both high and low relief. The lower tiers are more earth-bound and sensual; admiring these panels you are very much in the world of 9th-century Java, even though it has a mystical inflexion. The higher tiers are more ethereal and otherworldly. And at the summit, crowned by the main dome, the pilgrim is greeted by a cluster of seated stone Buddhas, some nesting in their own cage-like stupas.

On my first visit here, many years ago, I was offered a lift to the monument by a uniformed Indonesian general in a Jeep. The edifice had only been recently restored, and I suppose he was paying his respects. But there wasn't that much time to chat and when I told him I was Australian he lapsed into visibly displeased silence. Soon afterwards he told his driver to stop and I was ejected.

This time hundreds of Indonesian school kids, the young women in hijabs, are making the pilgrimage to Borobudur. They seem less interested in the deep Buddhist symbolism of the place than in collaring tourists for English lessons. Anisa Fitri, who is staying at a local boarding school for a few weeks, is interviewing visitors for a class project and she carries a clipboard and a pen. She asks where I'm from, and smiles broadly when I tell her. "I would love to go there," she says. And when I roll out my farewells in her own language, her smile broadens even further and she punches the air with unbridled delight.

The charms of central Java are distilled in this parting memory of the students at Borobudur; in the allure of the past, and the promise of the future. 

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Garuda flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Yogyakarta via Denpasar, Bali. Air Asia flies via Kuala Lumpur. Solo is an hour by train from Yogjakarta. Borobudur is about an hour's drive from central Yogjarkarta.

STAYING THERE 

Dusun Jogja Village Inn. Around 20 years old and nicely established in a lush tropical garden surrounding a spacious pool, this quiet and well-maintained sanctuary – despite the nearby mosque and the occasional roar of motorbikes – is about 15 minutes from the city centre. But transport by taxi and becak is cheap in Jogya; it's around $4 to the city. Jl. Menukan No.5, Karangkajen, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta, jvidusun.co.id

Alila Solo opened in October 2015. A medium-rise tower designed by the Jakarta offices of Australian's Denton, Corker Marshall, this spectacular new hotel is reasonably priced – around $120 for a double room – and richly yet subtly decorated with traditional motifs given a contemporary twist. Check out the 50-metre pool and stunning rooftop bar. 562 Laweyan, Jl. Slamet Riyadi, Jajar, Kota Surakarta, Jawa Tengah, alilahotels.com

SEE + DO 

The temple of Borobodur is the highlight of central Java. Not just a site of pilgrimage, it is a work of art and moving experience radiating a universal message: a hymn to serenity in beautifully worked stone.  

DINING THERE 

Jogya and Solo are crammed with interesting eateries and there are no shortage of options, Jogya being better served with western variations including Spanish and French. To dine as the locals do step out to one of the many Padang restaurants – Sumatran in origin – for a beef rendang and a choice of greens. The perfect accompaniment is a dish called gulai daun singkong: a cassava leaf stew enriched with coconut milk, lemongrasss, candlenuts and of course chilli. Best to have that beer beforehand.

Luke Slattery travelled at his own expense.

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